The Unusual Side of Normalcy
Pressing a kiss to Jack’s forehead, I passed him off to Mum, who was waiting with opened arms - and a bottle. “I’ll be back soon, sweetie,” I assured him, though his attention was focussed elsewhere, namely the bottle in his grandmother’s hand.
I rolled my eyes, but smiled anyway. This wasn’t nearly as hard as I had anticipated - leaving Jack for the first time to go to work, I mean. I thought it would be a struggle to hand him over to Mum without a fight. Though it wasn’t necessarily easy, it wasn’t heart-wrenching either. It was difficult to explain and hardly logical, considering that I was all but a blubbering mess on my first day of work, but I didn’t want to dwell on the negative.
This was a good thing, I told myself as I grabbed a handful of emerald powder and prepared to Floo to the office. But even as I stepped into the grate and tossed my handful, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread bubbling in my stomach - but that was mainly because I realised that even after I returned from work to spend time with Jack, I would have to share the time with James as, once again, I made a promise I wasn’t so inclined to keep. Still, he deserved to spend time with Jack just as much as I did - at least, that’s what I assured myself as I called out, “Gringotts!” and the nauseating spinning began.
The ground was unstable underneath my feet as I was rather unceremoniously spewed out of the grate, into the employee’s only break room. Several domed heads swivelled in my direction, but only one of the goblins greeted me with a warm grin.
“It’s so nice to have you back,” Terra said as she waddled over to me. She reached out and tugged the hem of my black robe out of my shoe. “It was getting rather boring.”
“Even with Mr. Kilpatrick around?” I teased, grinning wickedly at her.
She snorted. “It would’ve been better if he hadn’t been hovering so much.” Upon my inquisitive look, she added, “He sat at your desk all afternoon, waiting to hear from you.”
A guilty knot formed in my stomach at the sight of her wistful expression. Goblins may not have favoured humans, but it was clear to see that Terra was infatuated with our boss. I had already felt bad for leaving her alone to do all the work, even though she had done it by herself before I was hired, but now this?
“I think he likes you,” she continued.
“Yeah, well, I don’t like him,” I responded immediately, barely retaining the grimace at the taste of the lie.
Again, she snorted. “Of course you don’t.” She smiled wryly at me, and I knew she wasn’t upset. Probably just a little disappointed she wasn’t several feet taller and, you know, human. “Shall we?” she gestured towards the hallway that led to our desks.
I grinned. “Lead the way.”
The pile on my desk was sizeable, but manageable, so by the time my lunch break arrived, I was very nearly caught up with what I had missed. Granted, I had only been gone a day, but I had been expecting the worst. Funny how I always seemed to do that - expect the absolute worst of any situation, I mean. Perhaps it was years of experience that made me wary. Or maybe I was just cynical.
“Just one more file, and I’m done,” I informed Terra, who was busy at work.
“That’s nice, dear,” she replied distractedly, a pair of silver rimmed glasses perched precariously on the end of her long, narrow nose. “You’ve made a lot of progress.”
Beaming wordlessly, I swivelled my chair back towards my desk, intent on picking up the last file and getting everything square away, when the phone beeped. Startled at the sudden sound, I nearly toppled backwards in my chair, but managed to catch myself on the lip of my desk. I cleared my throat before pressing the button.
“You’re reached Gringotts’ Department of Human Relations, this is Mara, how may I help you?” I stated automatically with an air of what I hoped was professionalism in case it was Patrick on the other end of the line.
“I wasn’t awake you were a robot.”
My breath caught in my throat and I sputtered senselessly, nearly dropping the phone in surprise. “James?“
I ground my teeth at the sound of his flippant response. If I could get my hands on that scraggly neck of his… “What are you doing, calling me while I’m at work? Are you mad?”
“Yes, actually,” he replied, catching me by surprise, “but not in the sense you’re thinking.”
Tightening my grip on the receiver, I glared at the base of the phone, imagining it to be his face. “Pray tell, what sense would that be?” I growled.
“Now, now, there’s no need to lose your temper.”
“James, I’m serious!” I said, wanting nothing more than to reach through the phone and throttle him. The fact he was acting so casually towards me after what had happened last night was unbelievable. It was almost as though it didn’t even phase him, even though he had almost cheated on the fiancée he claimed to love oh-so-much. It took every ounce of my restraint not to bring this up.
He exhaled, the sound fuzzy through the line. “Fine then. Where are you?”
“Obviously I’m at work,” I answered slowly, determined to keep my temper for the time being. I couldn’t afford to lose it while at work. If Patrick walked by and saw just how crazy I was…well, it wouldn’t be good, that’s for sure.
“I know that,” James scoffed, his annoyance so tangible it was rubbing off on me. “I’m just wondering why you’re not at my parents’ house. You know,” he tacked on casually, “like you said you would be.”
The temptation to bash my forehead repeatedly against my desk had never been greater. I had promised him that I would bring Jack over in the afternoon, but I didn’t think he would take it literally; it was only a few minutes after noon. Sighing, I settled for leaning back in my chair and scrubbing a hand across my face.
“I said I would be there this afternoon,” I agreed, unable to keep the edge out of my voice. “And I will be, but I don’t get off until four o’clock. So you’ll just have to wait until then to see him.”
If I was expecting a calm response, I didn’t get one.
“Damn it, Mara, I think I’ve waited long enough, and I don’t want to wait anymore!” he shouted so loudly I had to pull the receiver away from my ear to spare my eardrums. I glanced over at Terra’s desk and saw that she, too, was shocked by the sheer volume of his voice. Waving away her look of concern, she returned to her work, though I could tell she was keeping an ear out.
“James, listen to me -”
“No,” he interrupted fiercely. “You listen to me.”
The forcefulness of his voice made me sit up a little straighter in my chair. Clearly, he meant business.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I nodded, despite the fact he couldn’t see me. “Okay,” I said tentatively, “I’m listening.”
“Thank you,” he muttered resentfully, though the angry edge had disappeared. Now, he sounded tired, resigned. I frowned, readjusting my grip on the receiver. “Look, I know you don’t think I can take care of Jack on my own, and I’ll admit that I have no idea what I’m doing, but he’s my son too. And the way I see it, I’ve got to learn sometime, so why not now?”
I could think of a million and one reasons why now wasn’t the right time for him to step up and take responsibility for his son, but I didn’t dare voice them. I highly doubted James would like to hear exactly what I had to say. So instead, I swallowed what I wanted to say and said what I was supposed to.
“I understand, James,” I began cautiously, not wanting to step on his toes, “and you have no idea how…happy it makes me to see - or hear, rather - how much time you want to spend with him, but I can’t bring him over right now. I’ve used too much of my lunch break on this phone call.”
“Then why don’t I drop by your parents’ house and pick him up?” James suggested, a little too suddenly for my taste. Almost as though he had been waiting for this part of the conversation. I narrowed my eyes instinctively; knowing James, he probably had been.
“But I said I’ll bring him by after work!”
“It’d make more sense if I brought him back to my parents’ house,” reasoned James, completely ignoring my pathetic protest. “My parents and I could spend a few hours’ with him and you can pick him up on your way home from work.”
I tried to think of a good reason why it was a bad idea, but couldn’t. Instead, I sat at my desk, opening and closing my mouth like a tuna fish, as I attempted to make an excuse. I used to be so good at that.
Finally, upon realising that it was pointless to argue with his seemingly infallible logic - there was no doubt in my mind that Albus was somehow behind the whole thing; it seemed like the sort of thing he would do - I heaved a sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose.
“Okay, fine,” I said as the rush of air left my lungs.
“Really?” The excitement in his voice was enough to make me crack a small grin.
“I’ll call my mum to tell her to get his stuff together.”
On the other end of the line, James gave a joyous whoop. In the background, I could hear a faint feminine giggle, which made the blood in my veins boil, my fingers subconsciously tightening around the receiver.
“Stars, Mara, thank you,” James gushed, his words thick with undeserved gratitude. “Thank you so much.”
Another smile, this one much grimmer than the first, wound its way onto my lips. “I’ll be there to get him at five.” Without saying goodbye, I hung up the phone.
Following the conversation with James, it was difficult to focus on my work. Suddenly, sorting through files and sending them to their proper departments seemed so trivial - and oh so incredibly pointless. Which, I suppose, it always had been, but I hadn’t noticed until that moment in time. All I could think about was my baby boy and how his day was going.
Was James taking good care of our son?
Was Jack confused, unsure about the strangers he was surrounded with?
Did Jack think Sophie was prettier than me, ergo a better mummy?
Sighing, I scrubbed a hand over my face for the thirteenth time in an hour. The thick piles of files stared up at me, waiting to be signed and sent off. I glared back. Such work may have seemed pointless to me, but the sooner I finished, the sooner I could collect Jack and convince him that I was the better mum, not that slag with big tits and even bigger hair.
It wasn’t nice to think of Sophie that way, especially when she was just days away from tripping down the aisle and marrying my son’s father. Making her Jack’s stepmother. I blanched at the thought and seized the topmost file, flipping through it and checking the basics. Once satisfied with the details, I scribbled my name on the dotted line and sent it off. Work might have been pointless, but it was the perfect distraction from such disturbing thoughts.
However, no matter how many files I checked, rechecked, signed, and sent away, I couldn’t get my mind off the one glaringly obvious fact: James was getting married in a matter of days, and Sophie was going to be in our lives forever. If everything went well, of course, which, knowing James as well as I did, he’d never file for divorce. That was one of the most annoying things about his personality, as well as the most endearing; he stuck by the ones he was committed to, whether by blood or by bond of fellowship, through thick and thin.
Ah, James, always the optimist. Except for when I was involved, then he was just downright cynical. With good reason, of course, but still.
As much as I disliked Sophie, I knew I was going to have to get used to the idea of her. She was going to be in the picture, whether I stepped aside or fought her tooth and nail. Whether I liked it or not, she was going to be a second mother to Jack; she was going to love him, hold him, kiss him, and treat him like he was her own son - and if she didn’t, she would have me to answer to. But I knew that wouldn’t happen; from the brief interactions they’d had with one another, Sophie seemed to have a genuine connection with Jack, as begrudged as I was to admit it. It was maddening and frustrating and not in the least endearing, but it was reality, and I had to deal with it.
How does the phrase go? The sooner the better?
Ha. Yeah right.
More like the sooner she went back to the country from whence she came, the better. Hell, I wouldn’t even mind if she brought James with her. At least that complication would be gone from my life and then Jack would be mine, and only mine.
A small smile tugged at my lips as I leaned back in my chair, for once satisfied with the weird turn my mind had taken. It was incredibly easy for me to get sidetrack, especially when I was contemplating issues concerning my son and James. Normally, it was annoying, the way my mind could deviate so far off topic, but today? Today, I didn’t mind all too much that my work was forgotten on my desk or that I was staring up at the ceiling with a stupid look on my face, dreaming of the day when James came to his senses and realised he’d made a dumb choice when he had chosen Sophie as his bride. The day Sophie left England would be a day of rejoicing.
Well, for me anyway.
I continued to daydream various scenarios in which the bitch went nuts, completely oblivious to my surroundings. So when someone grabbed the back of my chair and tilted it backwards, throwing the world off-kilter, I screamed, my arms flailing comically.
Once the legs of my chair were returned to the ground, I whipped around to glare at the perpetrator. Almost immediately, my eyes narrowed. I should’ve known. “That wasn’t funny, Ted,” I reprimanded, glaring at him.
All he could do was laugh. “Really? Because I thought it was hysterical.”
“Evidently,” I retorted sourly. “What do you want, anyway? Don’t you have work to do?”
Teddy snorted, folding his arms and leaning his hip against the edge of my desk. “I don’t think that’s the way an employee should talk to her boss.”
“Technically speaking, you’re not my boss,” I pointed out, “as the last time I checked, Mr. Kilpatrick owns this fine establishment.”
“But I run the department,” Teddy reminded, a grin plastered on his lips. “And by the looks of it, you’ve been slacking off. Care to tell me why?”
I shrugged. “Not really, but if you insist.”
Grinning, I said, “I was daydreaming.”
“About James?” he asked bluntly.
I leaned forwards and smacked him on the arm. “No, not James. I was daydreaming about Sophie.”
Teddy’s eyebrows shot to his hairline. “So you like women now?” He clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, shaking his head. “I had no idea James’ rejection would have such an impact on you.”
The smile fell away from my lips and I glared at him for real this time. “He didn’t reject me,” I muttered, affronted. At Teddy’s sceptical look, I added, “I never gave him the opportunity to.”
His responding grin made me feel a little better, but not much. “Keep up that attitude and you might just win him back.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not trying to ‘win him back‘, Ted. Besides,” I continued, averting my gaze to my hands, “it’s not like I’ve ever had a claim on him. Just because we slept together and had a kid doesn’t mean we’re in love.”
Again, the sceptical expression returned to Teddy’s face, obscuring his otherwise handsome features. However, his eyes reflected a different emotion entirely: caution, edged with hurt. “Are you still harping that bullshit?”
I scoffed, resisting the urge to flick my hair over my shoulder. “It’s not bullshit,” I insisted, lifting my chin defiantly, despite the sudden clenching of my stomach. “And for your information, I do not harp!”
“Oh, shove off,” I grumbled, shoving a hand through my hair in frustration. “I have work to do.”
Teddy threw his hands up at the ceiling. “Now she gets it!”
“You’re an insufferable little berk,” I commented as he pushed away from my desk and started down the hall. “Do you know that?” I called after him, scowling at his returning form.
“Just like I know you’re in denial!” Though he had his back to me, I knew he was grinning the bloody cat that ate the bloody canary. Arse.
Once he was out of sight, I reverted my gaze back to the stack of files on my desk, which was considerably smaller than it had been the last time I was interrupted, though it wasn’t anywhere near complete. A quick glance at my wrist watch told me it was a little after three o’clock in the afternoon. Only two more hours. Two more hours and I would get to see my baby boy.
I couldn’t wait, but knew that I had to.
I had never moved faster than I did when the clock struck five. After forty-five minutes of intense watching and agonizing waiting, I was finally able to go and see my baby boy. As I pushed away from my desk and hurriedly gathered my things, my hands shook with excitement.
“Where’s the fire?” Terra asked, amused, as she watched from her desk. Though she had finished her work nearly an hour before, she decided to stick around for a bit. She claimed that it was to keep me company, but I had a sneaking suspicion she was hoping to catch sight of Mr. Kilpatrick. Not that I could blame her.
“It’s five,” I responded, awkwardly trying to shove my left arm into my robe’s sleeve and reorganise the small stack of memos on my desk at the same time. “Time to pick up Jack,” I added at her confused look.
“Oh!” She smiled at me, revealing her crooked, broken teeth. “Well, don’t kill yourself in your hurry.”
Doing the mature thing and sticking my tongue out at her, I managed to shrug my travelling cloak onto my shoulders. “I’ll see you tomorrow!” I didn’t wait for her to reply before taking off down the narrow corridor towards the break room.
I tripped over my feet several times in my haste to get to the nearest fireplace, though I caught myself every time before any damage could be done. That was the last thing I needed, an injury that would keep me away from my son. This wasn’t the longest amount of time I had gone without seeing him - not by a long shot. But it was the first time he’d been in the care of someone other than me or my parents, and I didn’t like it very much. Especially not when Sophie was one of his guardians.
The break room was empty when I burst through the door, meaning there was no line to use the fireplace. Grinning despite myself, I hurried over to the hearth, grappling for the jar of Floo Powder on the highly polished mantel. I’d stepped into the grate and was ready to cast my handful when a familiar voice broke my concentration.
I inhaled sharply, taking in a lungful of the powder and coughing violently because of it.
“Oh shit,” cursed the voice of Patrick Kilpatrick, “I didn’t mean for that to happen.”
Jumping in surprise at the feel of his hand on my shoulder, the warmth of his fingertips seeped into my muscle as his hand drifted away from my shoulder to my back, which he patted at though I was a baby.
“Are you alright?”
Hacking one final time, I nodded. “I’ll be fine.”
“Sorry about that,” he said, colour rising to his unbelievably well-sculpted cheeks. “I wanted to catch you before you left, but when I popped by your desk, Terra said you’d already left, but I ran here anyway, just to be sure.”
Patrick flashed me a knee-melting smile, a hopeful gleam in his eyes. “So, do you have a minute or are you in a hurry to get out of here?”
As much as I wanted to tell him I needed to get home as soon as humanly possible, I couldn’t, mainly because he was…well, he was Patrick Kilpatrick. He was handsome, charming, and God be damned, sweeter than my mum’s apple pie. Though I figured he wanted to discuss something work related, I thought it was sweet that he’d ran to catch me before I left. The only time James ever ran after me was when I stole the last of the Canary Crèmes.
“I can spare a minute,” I said, pushing my hair out of my face.
“Wonderful,” he replied, his cheeks dimpling as he grinned. “I was wondering if…“ he paused, dragging his tongue along his bottom lip. It took every bit of willpower not to moan at the sight. “Well, I was wondering if you would like to go to dinner with me.”
I couldn’t help it; my jaw dropped open.
Talk about the last thing I was expecting.
“W-what?” I stuttered, completely awestruck. Why in the name of Merlin’s great-grandmother’s beard was he asking me out? And of all the damned times?!
Patrick laughed warmly. “Would you like to go to dinner with me?” he repeated slowly.
Heat rushed to my cheeks and I averted my eyes away from his face. “That sounds lovely and all, but…” I trailed off, unsure of how to phrase it without hurting his feelings.
“You’re seeing someone else, aren’t you?” Patrick asked, disappointed. “Don’t tell me - it’s that bloke from the hospital. Your son’s father.”
“James?” I squeaked, surprised he knew about that. Teddy had probably told him; I’d have to teach him a thing or two about secrecy. “Oh good Merlin, no! I mean, yes, he’s my son’s father, but we’re not - he’s getting married on Saturday!”
To see the relief flood into his features made me feel extremely good. “That’s - well, it’s great,” he said, smiling again. Did anything get this man down? “So…would you like to?”
“Go to dinner with you?”
“I’d love to,” I said in a rush, unable to help myself. “But I can’t tonight. I have to go pick up my son from his father’s house.”
Patrick made a show of rolling his eyes. “First you deny me coffee, now dinner.” He shook his head, painting a solemn expression on his unnaturally handsome face.
“Are you going to hold that against me every time from here on out?” I asked, placing a hand on my hip.
He shrugged. “Depends.”
I raised a brow. “On what?”
“What you say to tomorrow night.”
I fidgeted with my hands, not knowing what to say. I could accept his invitation and have a perfectly wonderful evening with a man light years out of my league, or I could decline and stay at home with Jack. As much as I loved my son and adored spending time with him…
The temptation was too great.
“Tomorrow night it is.”
Patrick beamed. “Great. I’ll see you tomorrow evening.” He moved to leave, but at the last minute, he turned back towards me and leaned forwards, pressing a kiss to my cheek. “I can’t wait,” he whispered, his hot breath tickling my ear.
I waited until he left the room to swoon.
By the time I made it to James’ house, it was half five in the evening. Between Patrick catching me by surprise and asking me to dinner and jetting home to discard my work robes for comfortable clothing, it was no wonder I was so late.
Excitement tingled through my veins as I raised my fist to knock on the door. Three short wrappings on my knuckles on the wood and I folded my arms over my chest, all but shaking with anticipation. It was ridiculous, really, the way I was getting so worked up over seeing Jack, but I had to know if he was alive and well, or if Sophie had done something drastic like coloured his hair blue to match the flowers at her wedding.
I was ready to knock again when the door opened to reveal a smiling Harry. “I’ve been wondering when you’d arrive,” he said as way of greeting, stepping back to allow me entrance into their home.
“I’m not too late, am I?” I asked worriedly, wringing my hands as he closed the door behind us.
“Not at all,” Harry replied, slipping his hands into his pockets. “In fact, we’ve been hoping you’d be a bit later so we could spend more time with him.”
I didn’t have to ask whom he was talking about. “Oh,” I muttered, the guilt I had felt in the hospital returning full-force to my stomach. The only person I’d been able to think about all day was me; I hadn’t even considered the Potters. “Well,” I began, fidgeting, “if you’d like, I could come back later?”
Harry chuckled and shook his head. “That’s not necessary, Mara. Besides,” he added as he started down the hall, “I think he’s ready to see his mummy.”
At this, I grinned and followed Harry past the staircase and into the living area. Lily and Albus were sitting with their backs to me, each holding up a pillow in front of their face. Across from them, situated on the large carpet, was James, who held a bouncing, giggling Jack in his lap. Ginny was perched on the edge of the couch, watching the scene fondly.
Sophie was nowhere in sight.
Ginny noticed me first. “Mara!” she greeted with a smile, her pretty brown eyes sparkling.
At the sound of their mum’s greeting, Lily and Albus whipped around while James looked up, a frown painted on his lips. In his lap, Jack began squirming excitedly, his small fingers reaching out for me.
Another huge smile spread across my face at the sight. “Jack!” I exclaimed, forgoing calls of greeting to the three Potter children and making my way over towards my son. Dropping down onto the floor in front of James, I held out my arms for Jack, who continued to make grabby hands at me.
James sighed. “If you must.”
Rolling my eyes, I scooped Jack up into my arms and began peppering his face and belly with kisses. His responding squeal of laughter made me forget James’ annoyance with me. It made it worthwhile. Once every inch of his chubby face was kissed, I rearranged Jack in my arms so his back was aligned with my chest and he was facing his family. Inwardly, I paused; what an odd notion.
“So,” I said, looking at each of their faces in turn. Jack started tugging at my hair. “How was he?”
Everyone responded at once.
“When he first got here, he started crying, and I couldn’t have that, so I brought some toys down from the boys’ old bedroom -”
“- should really consider teaching him not to pull at things. You know he nearly pinched off my nose?”
“- couldn’t believe how much he eats! And I thought James ate a lot -”
“- and after he pinched my nose, he went for the ears. Weird habits, that kid has -”
“- and then we played outside for a bit after he woke up from his nap.”
I blinked, overwhelmed by the amount of nonsensical information that had flooded my way. The only person who hadn’t spoken was James. He was still staring at me like I had offended him somehow…or deprived him of four months worth of days similar to this one.
“So he was good then?” I hedged, ignoring the rough tugs at my hair.
“Very,” the Potters said in unison, save for James.
After sending him a curious glance, I looked down at Jack, beaming with pride. His first foray into the world without his mum had been successful. “Good boy,” I told him, pressing a kiss to his forehead.
A beat of tense silence passed.
And just one more.
Before another could pass, James broke it.
“It’s getting late,” he stated suddenly, catching everyone off-guard. Out of everyone, I expected him to be the very last person to remind me of the time. I would’ve thought he’d want to spend all the time he could with Jack, not throw us out the door almost as soon as I came by.
“Well that’s rude,” Lily said, folding her arms over her chest as she glared daggers at her brother. “She only just got here!”
“And we didn’t finish our game of Peek-a-boo!” interjected Albus, kicking at his brother’s foot.
As though he understood and agreed with Albus’ statement, Jack giggled and wiggled in my arms, his little legs flailing in excitement when his uncle’s face disappeared behind his hands.
“No,” I said, staring at James as I redistributed Jack’s weight onto my hip. “He’s right. It’s getting late and Jack hasn’t eaten yet. Neither have I, for that matter,” I added as an afterthought. As if on queue, my stomach gave a low grumble. I blushed whilst everyone minus James laughed.
“You could eat here,” Harry offered politely from his seat next to his wife. “Ginny doesn’t mind, do you, dear?”
The redhead shook her head. “Not in the slightest. We’d love to have you for dinner.”
I didn’t know how to get out of this situation without being rude. I’d eaten dinner with the Potters almost as often as I ate with my own parents, but this was different. Things had changed and now that Jack’s parentage was known, it felt…weird, almost wrong to sit at the same table as them, eating the same food, sharing the same conversation. It was mostly because I had lied to their faces for so long, yet they still wanted me around. Or needed me, at any rate, if they wanted to see Jack. After all, I was his primary custodian.
Thankfully, James saved me from responding.
“She can‘t, Mum,” he said, sending his mother a look of utmost annoyance, “because Sophie’s coming over for dinner.”
“Lily is right; you are being rude.“ Ginny frowned at her son. “I fail to see how Sophie’s attendance has anything to do with Mara eating with us.”
James rolled his eyes as he climbed to his feet. “It has everything to do with it. Sophie -”
“-doesn’t like me very much,” I interrupted, struggling to get to my feet as well while holding Jack in my arms. Out of instinct, James held out a hand, which I took without a thought.
Almost immediately, Lily began her reassurances. “That’s not true, Mara, and you know it.”
“Yeah,” Albus chimed in, his bottom lip warbling as he struggled to hold back his laughter. Unlike his family, he wasn’t being at all serious because he knew as well as I did that Sophie hated my guts. And if she didn’t before Jack’s hospitalisation, she most certainly did now. “She likes you just fine. Why else would she make you her maid of honour?”
Pulling a face at Albus, I snorted. “I can think of a number of reasons,” I muttered loud enough for James to hear me.
He frowned at me, the seemingly permanent furrow in his brow becoming more pronounced. “She doesn’t dislike you, Mara,” he said, his words coloured with earnestness.
“But she doesn’t exactly like me either,” I returned, looking up at him. “You know the saying ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer‘?” At his nod, I added in a mock-whisper, “I’m the enemy.”
James rolled his eyes. “You’re hardly the enemy,” he insisted.
Again, I snorted derisively. “Sure I’m not. Just like Portree is the best team in the league,” I replied, knowing he would understand the analogy. We stared at each other for a beat of silence before I shook my head, wondering why I was playing along with this nonsense. “Anyway, we should really get going.”
They chorused their protests at once.
“But you’ve only just got here!” Lily argued again, this time training her sharp stare on me.
“And we’ve barely played with Jack,” added Albus, which only contributed to the knot of guilt forming in my stomach.
“I know,” I said again, my voice sounding pitiful even to my own ears.
“Enough!” James exclaimed, his dark eyes flashing as he rounded on his siblings, who clamped their traps shut immediately. “Seriously, you two, sod off. Mara’s been working all day, and I highly doubt she wants to deal with your shit.”
“That’s not true -”
“Now, please,” he continued as though I hadn’t said a word. “Will you lot clear off so I can have a word with Mara before she goes?”
Albus opened his mouth to protest, but Ginny walloped him on the back of the head before he could get a word in edgewise. A string of curses fell from his lips as he climbed to his feet, throwing glares at his mother, who seemed impervious to them. After raising two boys and a girl with the tempers they possessed, I was surprised she didn’t refract the glares back at them.
Once they shuffled out of the living area, James shut and locked the door behind them before casting a Silencing Charm on it.
“In case they try to listen in,” he offered as an explanation, “and knowing my family, they will.”
Despite myself, I grinned at this, glad to see that his bad mood hadn’t completely consumed him. Still, though there was a joking note in his voice, there was something off about his presence. He was the opposite of his usual self, which frightened me. Oh Merlin, I hoped against all hope that he wouldn’t bring up our last encounter and the Almost Kiss.
However, after almost a minute of complete silence, I began to doubt whether he would say anything at all. Shifting Jack about on my hip, I opened my mouth to speak, but of course, as soon as I gathered the courage to speak, James did as well.
“Thanks,” he blurted.
“For what?” I asked, confused.
“For letting me - us - spend the day with Jack,” James said, smiling slightly. “I don’t think you have any idea how much it means to them.” He dropped his gaze to his hands. “How much it means to me.”
I stared at him, unsure of how to respond, aside from the obvious “you’re welcome”. Somehow, I didn’t think it quite fit the situation. So, I went with the next generic response I could drum up. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
James lifted his eyes to my face, one eyebrow cocked in amusement. “Not a big deal? You can’t be serious, Mara.” He shook his head dubiously at my expression. “The fact you’re letting them - me - spending time with Jack is just…” he trailed off, rubbing his jaw thoughtfully. “Well, it’s more than I could’ve asked for.”
“But he’s just as much your son as he is my son,” I countered, bouncing the baby on my hip for emphasis. “Did you honestly think that I’d deprive you of the right to spend time with him?”
“Do you want an honest answer?”
I scoffed, my temper flaring at his open-ended offence. “I’m glad you think so poorly of me, James. I know I was selfish for keeping Jack from you for all this time, but you honestly think that I’d make a promise to you and then break it?”
“No! Not at all!”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “That was a rhetorical question,” I deadpanned, wanting nothing more than to get out of the house. “Have you said your piece or do you have something else to add?”
Sighing heavily, James passed a hand over his face. “Look, Mara, I didn’t mean to offend you -”
“But you did,” I interrupted rudely.
“And I’m sorry,” he said in a rush before I could say anything else. “It’s nothing against you. Really, it’s not. I just thought -” he paused to push a hand through his hair, another sigh falling from his lips. “I just thought that this was too good to be true.”
I furrowed my brow. “What is?”
“This!” James gestured between the two of us. “Us!“ He started to pace as he spoke. “After everything that’s happened between us in the past year or so, I thought things would never be the same again. I thought there wasn’t the slightest chance in hell that our relationship would go back to the way it used to be. But now?” He smiled slightly. “Now things are normal - or as normal as they can be, given the circumstances.”
He couldn’t be serious…could he?
“You think things are back to normal with us?” I laughed hollowly, shaking my head. “We can never go back to the way we were. There’s too much between us, too much history.” I stared at him, feeling entirely too sympathetic towards him. Or possibly myself. “I mean, for Merlin’s sake, we have a son! As much as I would like to go back to being best friends, we can’t, James.”
His eyes bore into mine as we gazed at each other. “Why?” he asked thickly, as though he was trying to prevent any emotion from leaking through his voice.
I tried to hold my ground and return his stare with the same force, but I faltered, my resolve crumbling. It was stupid to think I could withstand his will, his determination.
The subtle setting of his jaw indicated his malcontent. Obviously, he wasn’t satisfied with my answer. “Why?” he repeated, the force in his voice cushioned by his clenched teeth. His eyes broke from mine, his gaze trailing over my face.
Tears prickled the backs of my eyes. “You know why,” I whispered, subconsciously tightening my grip on Jack. “We just…can’t,” I sighed pathetically. “Things aren’t what they used to be.” I licked my lips, the words clinging to the sides of my throat stubbornly. “They never will be.”
Silence pressed down heavy upon us for several moments before I decided to break it. Clearing my throat, I picked up Jack’s bag from the armchair and slung it over my shoulder. Rooted in his spot, James did and said nothing as I opened the living room door, expecting a heap of bodies to fall at my feet as I did. But no one was there.
Frowning, I threw a glance over my shoulder to see that James still hadn’t moved. “I’ll bring him by tomorrow on my way to work,” I said. Though he gave no inclination that he heard me, I knew he had.
A/N: This chapter is dedicated to Rachel! If it wasn’t for your endless support and love for this story, I doubt it would’ve gotten this far! I’m so happy you’ve returned. XOXO.
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